Importance of the First Line in Fiction
Basically, to me the object of a first line, or first page, is to get the story started as soon as possible and in the most interesting way. I’ve heard of a writing professor in the past who wouldn’t let his students write another sentence until they got the first sentence right—what right can’t be easily defined, and how he could justify the tuition spent for those students who never got it right for the semester I have no idea, but the importance of the first sentence can’t be denied.
Of course, the first sentence gives the indication of everything else to come. You can think of it as a reflection or a blueprint of the rest of the story, just as the first page is. There are some characteristics of the first page that cannot be incorporated into the first sentence, of course, but some are automatically included, such as verb tense, point of view, and that slippery indefinable phenomenon, voice. To me, voice in the first line can sell a novel. I believe my first novel was sold on the line “Hank was drunk and he slugged me—it wasn’t the first time—and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it.” I sent the manuscript out several times before adding this line, but after I added this line, Sonny Mehta at Knopf snapped it up. Personally, I can hear the tone in first clause that sounds like the voice in James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which I was modeling the novel on. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” “Hank was drunk and he slugged me.” I didn’t consciously mimic Cain, but I was so immersed in him at the time, I think that’s what happened.
You can’t see the plan for the whole short story or novel in the first line, and you’ll need to rewrite it many times, but sometimes a first line comes as a gift. It’s a wonderful thing to be inspired by your own first line. I believe my story “ReBecca” happened this way, when this line came into my head: “As her Siamese twin joined at the skull, I know Becca wants to fuck Remus as soon as she says she’s going to die our hair.” Once this line came into my head—from seeing two-toned hair on conjoined twins on a talk show—I had the sound of the narrator, the conflict, and an unusual and interesting physical detail to work with throughout the story.
As for writing the first sentence, you need to be inspired by your own interests, encounters, or whatever else it does for you, but once you have an idea, I think it’s possible to hone it by keeping a few of these concepts in mind that get worked out further on the first page and beyond.
Using T. Coraghessan Boyle’s sentence from “Descent of Man”:
“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.”
Story of a man whose girlfriend, Jane Good (Goodall?) falls in love with a chimpanzee.
Point of View—1st person
Protagonist’s sex—assume male at this point
General age—old enough to be “living with” a woman, sexual situation
Type of character—sympathetic, truthful because plain-spoken
Goal/need—to remedy the situation physically and psychologically
Tone—indignant, incredulous, plain, down to earth “stink”
Question—why stink suddenly?
Expectation—something unusual about story: scientific, fantastic?
You might not be conscious of all this, but it has to predict the rest of the story—it’s like poetry, so much in so few words.